Do you plan to see Lars von Trier’s dirty movie(s)? In the U.S., each part or “volume” of Nymphomaniac is being released via video-on-demand two weeks before the limited theatrical release. Volume I is now playing in these cities, and Volume II comes in to theaters on April 4th; both films are now available through VOD, iTunes, Amazon, etc.
The movies’ U.S. distributor will undoubtedly make more money through the online and VOD route, because I suspect many people will prefer to watch the unrated hijinks behind closed doors. A few brave souls may even be up for binge-watching all four hours in one evening, rather than waiting two weeks to find out what happens next.
Know, however, that Nymphomaniac is probably more fun when seen in a theater. There are many moments that, whether writer-director von Trier intended them to or not, will elicit laughter from an audience, whereas the overall glum, arid nature of the project might be harder to overlook when you watch both parts at home, as I did.
Lars von Trier can be a great filmmaker — sometimes, when he resists the temptation to play the bad boy. (For the plus side of the ledger, see Breaking the Waves, Melancholia, and much of Antichrist, before a certain chatty fox puppet shows up.) But in far too much of Nymphomaniac, particularly Volume II, he gives his more jejune impulses free rein. Four hours of Nymphomaniac leaves little doubt that von Trier is happy to flaunt his provocateur status.
Nymphomaniac: Volume I opens in an unnamed English city; the time is more or less present day. (Von Trier keeps the timeline vague, perhaps to keep the viewer from wondering why the specter of AIDS is never even broached during the lead character’s decades of libertinism.) Quiet, bookish Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) discovers Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), a badly bruised woman, lying in an alley. Despite clearly needing medical attention, she refuses his offer to call the police or an ambulance. But Joe does allow Seligman to bring her back to his modest flat. There he nurses her back to health, and coaxes from her the story of how she came to be lying in that alley.
Joe gives him far more than he bargained for by relating her life story — nothing less than the history of her nymphomania, beginning with how she discovered her “cunt” at the age of 2. (Get used to hearing the C-word; von Trier has no use for any more polite term.) Addicted to “sensation,” as she puts it, Joe’s life became an all-consuming pursuit of sexual fulfillment soon after she hit puberty.
Some readers may be tempted to check their local VOD listings right now. But bear in mind that Vol. I of Nymphomaniac consists of the older Joe narrating chapters from her youth (in the flashbacks she’s played by waifish Stacy Martin, who looks nothing like a young Charlotte Gainsbourg, more like an anorexic teenage Eva Green), with continual interjections from Seligman. The narrative stops and starts: as Joe recounts the story of her unsentimental education, Seligman can’t help weighing in, droning on about Bach, about cake forks, and most of all about fly-fishing. He never responds with any details of his own personal life or sexual history, and Joe eventually cottons on that this 60-ish sad sack is a virgin.
Joe, on the other hand, tells how she lost her virginity at age 15 by bluntly propositioning a shaggy local dude named Jerome (Shia LaBoeuf), and he calmly, roughly obliged her. Joe’s pointedly affectless deflowering is just a warm-up to von Trier’s first stunt-like set piece: a year or two later, teenage Joe and her best friend B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) parade through a train in hot pants, competing to see who can have sex with the most strangers; the winner gets a bag of chocolates.
Von Trier builds to a comically contrived incident — a hallmark of his weaker movies — where Joe, succubus like, breaks the will of a dignified older gent who is trying to save himself for his ovulating wife, who’s waiting at home and hoping to conceive. The whole train sequence plays like mocking, malevolent sexploitation, like something that the teenage Lars von Trier might have seen in a 1970s Eurotrash flick, and then restaged 40 years later though the lens of his cackling misanthropy.
Nymphomaniac: Volume I is surprisingly tedious overall. We’re continually pulled away from the vignettes of Joe’s youth and back to Seligman’s flat, where the present-day Joe coolly dissects her past outrages and Seligman the well-meaning, pedantic bore supplies all manner of annotations. Von Trier fashions the episodes from Joe’s past for maximum provocation, yet the overlay of philosophical inquiry, courtesy of Seligman, drains the sensationalism — one could even say the juice — out of the material. Nymphomaniac is far removed from pornography; anyone hoping for lurid X-rated thrills is bound to be frustrated, assuming he can even stay awake.
Scattered high points of Volume I remind the viewer of von Trier’s mastery of his craft. One such moment is the opening of “Chapter 4”: Seligman recites from Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” over a wide, B&W tracking shot of the younger Joe approaching a huge eyesore of a hospital, where her father (Christian Slater) lies dying. In a single visual von Trier creates a foreboding late 20th-century Gothic. Alas, then we’re back to the von Trier who doesn’t know when to quit.
Joe’s father is dying of an unnamed disease that causes him fits of raving dementia, as well as to lose control of his bowels. Von Trier may not think his audience understands how harrowing it would be to watch a loved one dying this way, because he has to show us the excrement-stained bed, sheets and floor, as well as a nurse having to wash the shit off the patient himself.
It’s all very grim, and viewers may find themselves pondering Scandinavian artists’ penchant for depicting the bleakest aspects of human existence as starkly as possible. You might be moved — or you might flash back, as I did, to the line about “another suicide-filled evening in Scandinavia” from the original This Is Spinal Tap trailer.
If this sequence didn’t have the desired effect on me, in part it’s because I found Slater to be the one not-quite convincing actor in Nymphomaniac, and partly because the young Joe’s response to watching her father’s death throes is to grab whatever orderly is around and mount him in the basement, which feels obvious and even kind of banal. Even Seligman objects that it’s hardly a surprising reaction to the proximity of death.
Von Trier does muster a memorable full-fledged scene — as long as you don’t think about it too much — near the end of Volume I: An asinine married man (Hugo Speer) who’s been carrying on with the young Joe shows up at her door with a suitcase, proudly declaring that he’s just left his wife. But said wife then turns up herself, with the couple’s three little boys in tow, and she’s played by Uma Thurman, who is memorably fierce as she lays into her hapless hubby. And then — cue the rimshot — another of Joe’s lovers shows up with flowers, and somewhat implausibly everyone sits down to dinner together, because in von Trier’s Martian view of human behavior this is what they would do, allowing Thurman’s character to continue with her wicked scolding.
Needless to say, the male half of the species doesn’t come off too well in Nymphomaniac. Joe’s various lovers, whether brutish or courtly, are invariably priapic and/or gullible. It’s child’s play for siren-like Joe to manipulate their egos, and von Trier’s skewering of masculine entitlement is blackly funny.
But I would hesitate to credit a feminist reading of Nymphomaniac, for starters because too many moments in Volume I play like a male writer’s conceit, and sniggering conceits at that. Worse than the train sequence in this regard is the way Joe reacts to the scorned wife showing up at her door with the three children that Joe’s lover has abandoned. Far from being shamed, Joe blithely comments of the episode, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.” This is what I would expect a male screenwriter’s fantasy of a heartless seducer to say — on a nighttime soap.
For a review of Nymphomaniac: Volume II, click here.
You can watch the trailer for Nymphomaniac: Volume I here (come on, you know you want to):